Wage stagnation, towering student loans, rising rental costs and years of austerity mean that more young adults are finding themselves buried in debt than at any time since the financial crisis of 2008.
Earlier this year, trade union body the TUC said that UK households now owe an average of £15,385 to credit card firms, banks and lenders because they have been forced to increase their borrowing.
To put these figures into perspective, each household now owes £886 more than it did 12 months ago – and just under £10,000 more than it did 20 years ago, when unsecured household debt sat at £5,456.
The UK has also experienced a surge in reliance on high interest payday loans. According to a report published by the Financial Conduct Authority in January, over 5.4 million payday loans were taken out in the year to June 2018, compared to 4.6 million the previous year. The amount borrowed has risen in value to £1.3 billion, up from £1.1 billion between July 2016 and June 2017.
Uncertain employment arrangements, thanks to the rise of the gig economy and zero-hour contracts, are also thought to contribute.
The impact on an individual of being in debt is manifold. From cutting back on household necessities and self-care essentials to going without heating or food, life for those on low to middle incomes who are affected by a sudden change in financial circumstances can mean routinely compromising their basic needs.
Then there’s the constant stress and crippling anxiety that come with being overwhelmed by debt, which can make the everyday feel completely unmanageable. So much so that more than 100,000 people attempt suicide every year because of outstanding arrears. However, there is always a solution, with several impartial debt charities and organisations on hand to help.
Jemma*, 25, has two young daughters. She found herself in £8,000 of debt after being unable to pay household bills that were left in her name following the breakdown of her relationship with the children’s father, which she says became abusive.
"It just got out of control. There were all these bills he was supposed to have paid, and he just hadn’t done it. As soon as I’d paid off one, I’d fall behind on another. He refused to help with any of them, and most of them were in my name, so the debtors all came to me."
Pretty soon, bailiffs began turning up at the safe house where she had been living to escape her ex and asking for money, terrifying her and her children.
Bailiffs are intimidating, scary – they are big men. They look through your door, peer through your windows.
"I had bad anxiety anyway because of the relationship, and this made things so much worse. [The bailiffs] are intimidating, scary – they are big men. They look through your door, peer through your windows. I had one with a camera once. It’s intimidating. It’s embarrassing as well because the neighbours can see.
"I became so scared I would sit in the house with the curtains closed. I wouldn’t even go to the shops, it was so hard. The kids were starting to get affected too. If someone would knock on the door, they would run and hide. It wasn’t fair on them."
She’s seeking legal action against her ex to take responsibility for his half of the debt – as well as trying to get an injunction against him – but is struggling to afford a solicitor. However, she now has a manageable payment plan through Christians Against Poverty, a debt charity suggested to her by a case worker at her local job centre.
"I’m working two jobs as a cleaner and as a midday assistant to try and pay these off, and I get some Universal Credit too. When I get paid, the charity takes a chunk out, and they distribute it through the debtors. Any letters I get from bailiffs or anything like that, they deal with that too, and give me support on how I’m feeling with everything."
She now has a year and eight months before her debt will be fully paid off.
"I’m relieved but it’s going to be hard. I’m struggling and the kids are going without. There are times when I can’t top up the gas. School trips and new uniform, things like that, I have had to cut. I haven’t bought any new clothes for so many years and I can only afford cheap makeup that ruins my skin."
Bouchra, 30, was earning a decent wage as a gas engineer and didn’t notice the extent of credit card debt that was creeping up on her until it reached £21,000.
"It was all for my ex-husband," she tells Refinery29. "I spent all of my money on expensive presents for his birthday, to get him the nice laptop he wanted, the nice phone. I even paid for the flat we lived in – and our wedding, which was in Leith Castle.
"He'd often use my credit card to buy things and say he’d pay me back, but he never did. When I realised my debt had risen so high, he didn’t want to help me pay it off. If I stopped paying for things, he’d be really abusive towards me."
Trapped in a coercive relationship, she says she was worried that if she didn’t say yes to his increasingly lavish demands, he would leave her – and the children they had together. So she used her overdraft and took out loans in a bid to keep up her spending on him, only to find herself in increasing trouble. He, meanwhile, was between jobs and not earning.
"All debts were entirely in my name and not in his at all. It was so out of control, I was getting sent so many letters. I had to escape, so I went to a refuge. I didn’t want him to find me."
Like Jemma, Bouchra is now ex-free − and soon to become debt-free, too. She contacted personal insolvency practice Creditfix to help her formulate a repayment plan and now has one year left to go.
"It’s very hard, but I have no other solution. I felt depressed a lot. I used to take the kids to school, come back and just sleep all day. I didn’t know what to do. But now I’m hopeful that things are going to improve."
Catherine Morgan’s experience of being £20,000 in debt in her 20s because of a shopping addiction inspired her to change her career. Now 37, she’s a financial planner and founder of The Money Panel, and is actively working with young women from a broad range of incomes to help them forge better relationships with money.
"I ended up in trouble essentially trying to take control of areas of my life because they felt out of control. This led to me having issues with an eating disorder – and an addiction to shopping.
"I looked at people who were very skinny and wondered what they were wearing – and then I’d try to copy it. It was all high street stuff, like Topshop and River Island, but it was the sheer volume of it I was buying. I had a spare room absolutely full of clothes, suitcases full, drawers overflowing, it was mad. I had a well paid job in banking at the time, and I was managing other people’s money, but I wasn’t managing my own."
It was only when Catherine underwent therapy to unpick some of the psychological reasons why she had formed these habits that she was able to manage her spending and, through selling off investments (as well as clothes on eBay), slowly pay off her debt. It’s this same realisation she now tries to bring about in others.
"Having an emotional relationship with money was about identifying where the trigger points are. People get into exactly the same situation every time. The ladies I coach now are so often women going through divorce or mental health issues, who have never had control of money, who bury their heads in the sand because the overwhelming feeling is just too much and they don’t know where to go.
"I coach GPs who have £100,000 a year, and they are in £70,000 of debt. They get into habits with spending and think it’s not a problem because of how much they are earning, but that isn’t true."
She suggests that, coupled with the UK's increasingly difficult economic situation, the way we learn to handle money and manage our finances has a huge impact on the amount of debt we find ourselves in.
"We have a fixed relationship with money by the age of seven," Catherine continues.
Young women today have the added pressure of the Instagram lifestyle. Everything is thrown in front of them every day about how they need to look, what they need to have, what car they need to drive.
"This stems from parental influence, as well as cultural and societal influence. Particularly for young women today, they have the added pressure of the Instagram lifestyle. Everything is thrown in front of them every day about how they need to look, what they need to have, what car they need to drive. It presents money as an object that will make you happy. Which of course isn’t true. It’s understanding this, and understanding how to manage money at a young age. The earlier we start positive habits, the better."
As for the expert advice she has for those currently struggling with debt, Catherine recommends contacting a charity like StepChange as soon as possible.
"They give completely impartial advice, take control of creditors in some incidences, and can create a payment plan for you. Reaching out for support from people you don’t know is much better than family or friends. They won’t pass judgement on you. They deal with situations like yours every single day.
"Then I’d advise you to work to understand what you are spending, identify what your triggers are and start working on them in small steps that are achievable and manageable so you don’t have to change everything that you’re doing."
*Name has been changed